In this brave new 50/50 world, higher education would no longer be the preserve of a privileged minority, but a natural progression from a normal schooling. And the prospect of universities opening their doors to children whose parents and grandparents had missed out on the chance appealed to people across the political divide. It mirrored the kind of Britain we all wanted to live in.Apparently, back then, Britain's version of the U. S. News problem might have been too many institutions not acting like they were in the same business as Oxford or Cambridge.
Nobody focused too much on the small print. What would all these new university entrants be studying? How useful would their degrees be to them in later life? Who was going to pay for all this? It was the headline figure that caught the eye: 50 per cent. Half the population. A reasonable target for a modern democracy.
Twelve years on from the Labour landslide of 1997, the 50 per cent target is as remote as ever, like a mirage in a desert.
From Wolverhampton to Newcastle, there is an educational underclass that refuses to go away. No target set in Whitehall can shift it one jot. In the very poorest areas, fewer than one in 20 school-leavers go on to university.Enable dysfunction and call it authenticity. Check. Grade inflation. Check. The gatekeeping institutions creating excess demand for their slots. Check. Graduates with boutique degrees rendered unemployable. Check.
This coming autumn, thanks to the economic recession, is going to be a particularly depressing time for apostles of higher education. Millions of British children still aspire to go university. UCAS applications are up eight per cent on last year. But the requisite university places are not there for them. The Government has had to put a cap of 10,000, down from 15,000, on the number of new places which universities can offer.
The problem is not a lack of interest in learning among the young: it is the lack of a structure in which that appetite for learning can be satisfied. There are not enough good, useful, challenging degree courses to go around. And, with increasing numbers of pupils getting good grades at A level, it has become harder and harder for universities to sort the wheat from the chaff at the application stage.
In previous years, because of the clearing system, most school-leavers who were determined to go on to higher education managed to find a course somewhere, even if it was not their first choice. This year, the gap between supply and demand will ensure an awful lot of disappointed youngsters in August and September.
Well, perhaps they should just swallow their disappointment and get on with their lives. It should not take Sir Alan Sugar to remind us that success in life is not achieved by racking up letters after your name but by hard graft, enterprise and a teaspoonful of arrogance.